Sleep paralysis happens to most of us at least once, only we're not aware that we're experiencing it. It sounds kind of like a paradox: how can you be sure that you're paralyzed if you're asleep? That's the thing — you're not asleep, at least your mind is not.
To put it simply, your mind wakes up, but your body is still in sleep mode. Sleep paralysis sufferers often give accounts of haunting and terrifying hallucinations when experiencing an episode. It's not just not being able to move — it's the living nightmare that makes it the worst.
Four years ago, I was a final-year student in secondary school, and I was highly stressed out as my final exams were approaching. There was a lot at stake. My final grades decided my future: what university I would get into, whether I would need to pay tuition or I would get a scholarship, and so on. I became a student who would push herself to the limits and do everything she could to be the most outstanding person in everything she does. To this day, I still can't adjust my sleeping habits to my everyday life; one week I can hardly sleep, and one week I have problems even staying up during classes.
I remember it was a Saturday when I stayed up late studying. I went to bed around 2 a.m., and after a while, my eyes just suddenly popped open. I had a nightmare. I wanted to go to the bathroom, but I couldn't move. My muscles were aching; I had never felt anything like it before. It was like my whole body was one huge muscle and it was having the worst spasm ever.
I realized something was wrong, so I opened my mouth and started shouting for my mum, only I couldn't make any noise. I felt as if I was being suffocated by some unseen force — something dark that was trying to intervene. I could taste my salty tears running into my open mouth and my saliva gathering into a little pond on my pillow.
I was helpless, and I honestly feared that I was having a seizure and was going to die. I knew that if I didn't act quickly, it would only get worse, so I gathered all my strength — and it was not easy — and forced myself to move. I ripped one of my arms away from the bed, and my body woke up.
I was terrified and couldn't even comprehend any of it. I went back to sleep instantly, and a few hours later, it happened again: muscle spasm, suffocation, tears, drooling, calling for help. Only this time, the latter was successful because as I was lying there paralyzed, I suddenly felt a body laying down next to mine, and my mum started stroking my hair. She managed to calm me down and I fell asleep once again, knowing I was safe.
When I woke up in the morning, I felt exhausted. All my energy was sucked out of me by the spasm I had, and I couldn't erase that dark and unknown presence from my mind.
I thanked my mother for helping me and staying at my side. She said she was never there in my room that night. It had been a hallucination.
That was the point when I started doing some research on sleep paralysis. I remembered that my sister had told me she had had it once or twice before, so I asked her to share her experience. What she told me was uncanny. She basically described the same feeling: having an extreme spasm and a very vivid hallucination.
A few months later, I got accepted to my top-choice university, and I was the happiest person on Earth. Everything seemed to be finally working out for me. I was in a good place, I had wonderful friends, and I was working hard to build my future career. My only problem was with myself.
I created a self-image that seemed to be so confident and sure of herself, but I was actually struggling every day. I started going to pubs several times a week with my university mates, which wouldn't have been a problem if I hadn't been depressed and could have slept. But I completely lost control over my sleeping schedule and, one day, it happened again.
It was a busy weekday, and I was sleeping through the day; the previous night, I had been out with my friends. I was supposed to go to the university for a 6 p.m. class for a mid-term test, so I set my alarm to an hour earlier. When it went off, I wanted to reach for it, but I couldn't move. That terrifying feeling that something bad would happen to me crept into my mind again, and I knew what was happening — only this time, it was different.
In addition to my muscles hurting and feeling like I was having a seizure, my heart was pounding so loudly in my chest, I thought I was going deaf. I started crying and drooling again, and I wanted to get help desperately, but somewhere deep in my mind, I knew that I was home alone. I entered a state of shock when I heard someone enter my room.
The footsteps seemed familiar, but I couldn't figure out who they belonged to. I wanted to turn my head to see if it was one of my flatmates who heard my groaning and came to help me, but it was like my whole body was nailed down to my bed. I managed to roll my eyes in the direction of my desk, only to find a hallucination of myself getting ready for class.
It was my own footsteps that I heard, despite the fact that I was lying in my bed paralyzed. The hallucination seemed so real that for a moment that I wondered if I had died and my spirit escaped my physical body. What if I'm experiencing a thing where my soul travels somewhere? What if it never comes back and I end up in a coma?
I don't even know how I managed to gather the strength to escape the state of paralysis. When I finally woke up, I was so panic-stricken that I literally just lay there for hours, unable to move because of the trauma. I wasn't quite able to comprehend that it was just a hallucination, because that's the thing about sleep paralysis — it seems so real that after experiencing it, it's completely normal to feel traumatized.
After this incident, I went to see a doctor, and I tried to do exactly as she told me: I didn't let anything get in the way of my sleeping habits. Some nights it still happens, but I have come to a stage where I notice what is happening, and I am able to wake my body up before I start hallucinating. I like to think that this has something to do with the fact that I am doing my best to accept who I am and I am really trying to lead a balanced lifestyle.
For a long time, I didn't tell anyone about what happened because I thought they would think I'm crazy. But it's still better to have people assume you're crazy than actually go crazy because of a traumatizing hallucination.
And never let anything get in the way of sleeping enough. If you do, you might wake up to find that you're hearing your own footsteps while lying in bed paralyzed. You can really never know.